Regurgitation is the return of stomach contents up the esophagus and into the mouth. It may occur along with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Around 80% of people with GERD may have regurgitation as a symptom, which can vary in severity.

This article looks at GERD and other causes of regurgitation, prevention, treatment, and when to contact a doctor.

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Regurgitation is when stomach contents flow back up the esophagus and into the mouth.

The esophagus is the tube joining the throat to the stomach. The lower esophageal sphincter is a muscle that prevents stomach contents from leaving the stomach and traveling back up the esophagus.

A problem with the lower esophageal sphincter may cause stomach contents to flow back up the esophagus and cause regurgitation.

Read more about the esophageal sphincter.

With regurgitation, the food that comes up may leave the mouth, particularly in infants. Regurgitated stomach contents may appear the same as vomit, although the action of vomiting is generally more vigorous.

Reflux is when stomach contents, such as stomach acid or food, travel back up the esophagus from the stomach. People may taste reflux in the back of the throat.

The difference between regurgitation and reflux is that regurgitation is when reflux enters the mouth.

Read about acid reflux.

There are various reasons a person may experience regurgitation.

Gastroesophageal reflux (GER)

GER is the term for stomach contents traveling back up the esophagus. GERD is a chronic condition in which people have ongoing symptoms, and it may lead to complications.

Regurgitation is a common symptom of GER and GERD. People may also experience:

Infant regurgitation

Regurgitation is common and typical in infants due to factors such as:

  • having a smaller esophagus, which is less able to hold larger volumes
  • consuming large quantities of liquid meals
  • spending prolonged time lying down

Doctors may refer to regurgitation in infants as functional infant regurgitation if there is no underlying health issue causing the condition.

Functional infant regurgitation is present if it occurs in the first year of life and an infant has regurgitation for at least 3 weeks, occurring at least twice a day.

Rumination syndrome

Rumination syndrome is an eating disorder in which people involuntarily regurgitate food they have recently eaten.

The regurgitation of food usually happens within 15 minutes of eating. Reswallowing the food may occur afterward. Rumination syndrome may affect children or adults.

Read more about rumination syndrome.

If GER or GERD is causing regurgitation, it may help to take antacids. Antacids can ease mild symptoms and help relieve symptoms such as heartburn.

Avoiding lying down for at least 3 hours after eating may also help improve GERD symptoms. Some food and drinks may worsen symptoms, so it may help to avoid them. These foods include:

  • citrus fruit, tomatoes, and other acidic foods
  • chocolate
  • caffeine
  • alcohol
  • foods high in fat
  • spicy foods
  • mint

If an infant is regurgitating, comforting and soothing them may help. Some people find that it helps to move the child to a calm, quiet environment with dim lighting and relaxing sounds.

For regurgitation with rumination syndrome, practicing relaxation techniques and using chewing gum may help.

Learn more about foods to eat and avoid with GERD.

GERD can be serious without treatment. Over time, it can lead to complications including:

  • esophagitis, an inflammation of the esophagus that may lead to ulcers
  • esophageal stricture, a narrowing of the esophagus that can cause swallowing problems
  • Barrett’s esophagus, a change in the tissue lining of the esophagus, which can increase the risk of esophageal cancer

It is best to contact a doctor if a person thinks they may have GERD or they experience any complications affecting the mouth or throat.

Although rumination syndrome is rarely serious, it may be linked to weight loss and social anxiety. Without treatment, the disorder may cause distress and negatively affect a person’s quality of life.

In infants, symptoms present other than regurgitation may indicate a health issue. This includes:

  • refusal to eat
  • retching
  • bleeding
  • breathing problems

Managing GERD may help reduce symptoms such as regurgitation. Treatment for GERD may include:

  • losing weight
  • quitting or avoiding smoking
  • elevating the head 6–8 inches off the bed while sleeping
  • altering diet to avoid potential symptom triggers
  • taking medications, such as proton pump inhibitors or H2 blockers, which reduce the amount of acid the stomach creates
  • undergoing weight loss surgery

If other treatments are not effective, a person may undergo fundoplication. This is a surgical procedure to join the stomach to the end of the esophagus.

Preventing factors that can lead to GERD may help prevent the development of the condition and symptoms such as regurgitation. This includes:

  • losing excess weight and maintaining a moderate weight
  • avoiding smoking and secondhand smoke

Certain medications may also cause or worsen GERD, including:

A hiatal hernia is a leading cause of GERD. A hiatal hernia is an opening in the diaphragm that allows a section of the stomach to bulge through. Risk factors for a hiatal hernia include:

The outlook for those with regurgitation may depend on the underlying cause.

According to a 2020 article, proton pump inhibitors may help in around 15% of cases of regurgitation in people with GERD.

Procedures to help prevent reflux may be more successful. This includes fundoplication and magnetic sphincter augmentation, where doctors implant a magnetic device to help the lower esophageal sphincter close. However, healthcare professionals may be more likely to use fundoplication in most cases.

Research has shown that these procedures have a success rate of over 85% in people with GERD and regurgitation.

Regurgitation is a common symptom of GERD. It is also a common and temporary condition in infants.

Rumination syndrome is another cause of regurgitation and is generally reversible.

Diet and lifestyle changes, medications, and surgery may help manage regurgitation with GERD. Anyone experiencing symptoms of regurgitation or GERD should speak with a healthcare professional.